Analysts say a proposed deal between China and a regional bloc — including four countries that dispute Beijing's claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea — could undermine U.S. influence in Southeast Asia.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China intend to enter a comprehensive strategic partnership and fill it with language that could eventually accelerate trade, investment or even military ties.
Washington has reached out to Southeast Asia over the past five years with defensive weapons, military training and warnings to Beijing over its expansion in the South China Sea. But the United States lags China in economic support that the more impoverished Southeast Asian countries still need, analysts say.
"I think Washington had better be concerned, because building the next-generation high-tech weaponry is not necessarily going to help restore America's edge in competition with China," said Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Southeast Asian states can go "cap in hand" only to China for infrastructure aid, he said.
U.S. officials say Beijing, a rival superpower, is going too far in its South China Sea sovereignty dispute with ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. ASEAN is technically neutral, though its maritime states are open to U.S. military aid.
"Is the United States literally going to build back better, or is it going to appear to be retreating into some kind of Cold War-era mantle?" Chong asked.
Comprehensive strategic partnership
Partnerships are no stranger to the Asia Pacific, and China had them with 78 countries as of 2019, forming the "center of its foreign policy strategy," scholars from Wuhan University and Coastal Carolina University found in a study.
A comprehensive strategic partnership — the strongest level of bilateral arrangement short of a treaty alliance — implies extra close cooperation and follows from 30 years of other Sino-ASEAN agreements, including a free-trade deal. The nature of any partnership depends on follow-up by signatories, but China and ASEAN typically play up economic growth.
"You can see that the institutionalization of their relations, and especially trade and economic relations, are getting stronger, step by step," said Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
For Vietnam, which is particularly outspoken against China in the maritime dispute, the comprehensive strategic partnership could bring more Chinese tourists and help the wider economy, said Phuong Hong, 40, a travel sector worker in Ho Chi Minh City. Chinese tourists made up 5.8 million of the 18 million visitors to Vietnam in pre-COVID year 2019, domestic media reports say.
"In the south, if they come and visit, they also invest (in) some factories in the south of Vietnam," she said. "They set up many factories … and some agriculture in the Mekong Delta River, like durian farms," Hong said.
South China Sea dispute
China uses a "nine-dash line," citing maritime records from dynastic times, to claim about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea. The rival claimants look to the waterway for fisheries, shipping lanes and undersea fossil fuel reserves. The nine dashes cut into some nations' exclusive economic zones.
Over the past decade, China has angered rival claimants by landfilling islets in the sea, which stretches from Hong Kong to Borneo, for military use. Beijing periodically sends vessels into the exclusive economic zones of the other countries.
Scholars expect a nonpolitical agenda to take priority in the comprehensive strategic partnership. China and the Southeast Asian bloc "highlighted the importance of working closely together to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and advance the region's recovery and growth," the two sides said in a statement from a video-conferenced ASEAN-China Summit on October 28. They agreed at the summit to form the partnership.
ASEAN members Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam already take varied degrees of infrastructure money from China, Chong said. China ramped up aid and investment in Southeast Asia after losing a world court arbitration over the legality of its maritime claims.
An economic focus for the partnership would let South China Sea issues take their own course, Huang said. He pointed to a possible, eventual ASEAN-China code of conduct to head off any maritime mishaps.
China may already look to the partnership as a sign of "stability" in Asia, despite inroads by the United States, including the September 2021 AUKUS military technology sharing pact with the U.K. and Australia, said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at the University of the Philippines, in Quezon City. Washington sent warships to the South China Sea 10 times last year.
The China-ASEAN partnership "is probably more to respond to China's concerns about AUKUS, again … trying to balance by making these kinds of moves," Batongbacal said. China, he suggested, sees the ASEAN deal as a way to offset Australian, British and U.S. influence in Southeast Asia. In this vein, he said, the partnership is a "good way to show some progress."